SA doesn't have the time - The Witness

8 July 2020 - In Groundhog Day fashion, every move forward reverts to where it started. And it is delusional to imagine progress under these conditions.

Terence Corrigan

The 1993 movie Groundhog Day features a self-absorbed television anchor who, sent to cover a (real-life) tradition in a small town in Pennsylvania – where an eponymous groundhog will supposedly predict the arrival of Spring – get’s stuck in time. The same day recurs time and again, irrespective of his choices, or how the previous iteration ends. It features one darkly hilarious scene where, forced to perform the broadcast day after day, the anchor turns on his producer (and ultimate love interest) and sneers menacingly: ‘I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life.’

There is something of this in where South Africa finds itself today.

Not only is winter upon us, but it has struck as a pandemic rages on. Cases of COVID-19 are upwards of 170 000, with over 2 800 deaths. We’re not through the worst of it.

Meanwhile, the economic situation is anaemic. Official predictions are for a GDP contraction this year of over 7%. This may prove to be optimistic. Unemployment has exceeded 30% – and, as this is for the first quarter of this year, it does not account for most of the lockdown, and will almost certainly look a lot worse as the year wears on.

The supplementary budget delivered by finance minister Tito Mboweni warned of an impending debt crisis – something that has been coming for years, and amplified by the country’s relegation to junk status and now the search for foreign funds.

A cold and grey time indeed.

The prescription for South Africa’s malaise was phrased succinctly by Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane: ‘The solution lies in us growing the economy, ensuring that our growth agenda is enhanced. That’s the solution: growing, growing, growing the economy,’ he said.

But South Africa has no growth agenda. Rather, it has a series of Groundhog Day events, each of which recalls something that contributed to bringing the country to the point of crisis it has now reached. Hopes that the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic would push the government towards the ‘reform’ that president Cyril Ramaphosa’s accession was supposed to hail have faded.

Racial empowerment demands, for example, have long been flagged by investors as a key burden on the economy, upping the costs of investment and doing business. And even though it has largely been a discretionary initiative for businesses, government chose to use empowerment compliance as a grounds for distributing assistance.

Journalist Ferial Haffajee, herself not opposed to this policy, was nevertheless moved to comment: ‘BBEEE is a vital policy but in an emergency, you have to look at greater good.’

The government disagrees. In the words of the president in parliament: ‘The Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment policy thrust of this government, if anything, needs to be enhanced.’

Labour legislation, likewise, is to be made more onerous, with racial quotas likely to be introduced. Minister Thulas Nxesi pledged to be ‘very harsh’ on employers in terms of the expanded powers that amended legislation would confer. And even as the pandemic and lockdown has proven ‘very harsh’ indeed, this intention has been confirmed again in recent weeks.

Expropriation without compensation, another destructive, ideologically driven policy push that has done much to dissuade investors, remains very much alive. The ad hoc committee to amend the constitution is to be re-established, hoping to ‘resolve’ the issue by the end of the year.

Commented Ms Busi Mavuso of Business Leadership South Africa: ‘Nobody makes investments in assets they can’t trust will still be theirs in future. We need to conclude that debate and recommit to protect property rights so that investors have confidence that they can put their capital at risk.’

Once again, the government disagrees, and defaults – in Groundhog Day mode – to its prior position.

And then there is the state. Or rather the state of the state. This is to ‘play a critical role’. Well and good, but as he has obliquely acknowledged in the past, a ‘capable state’ is something that has yet to be built. South Africa’s administration has nowhere near the skills and capacity to take the sort of developmental (or ‘hegemonic’) role after which many in the ruling party hanker.

Creating this would demand a strictly meritocratic, career-oriented civil service, above the pull of politics. And nothing has so crippled the prospects of this as the noxious party policy of cadre deployment. Not only does this establish dual lines of authority, politicised the state (intentionally), and sets the stage for patronage politics, but it was condemned in a court judgment (Mlokoti v Amatole District Municipality in 2008).

Yet the ANC continues openly to pursue this. News reports that an internal party memo requires that the ‘the office of the Deputy Secretary-General [Jessie Duarte] should be informed of all posts prior to them being advertised and be sent the advert once they have been published. This process is to allow for Comrades who meet the criteria on the database to be allowed to apply.’

The ANC has denied its veracity (although some unnamed representatives from within the organisation were quoted as confirming it), but it hardly matters. Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said that the objective was to ‘appoint the right cadres for the job’. The concept, inherently contrary to both constitutional injunctions and state functionality, is not up for discussion.

In Groundhog Day fashion, every move forward reverts to where it started. And it is delusional to imagine progress under these conditions.

Ultimately, in the movie – spoiler alert, for those who’ve not seen it (it’s well worth it) – things work out. After endless repetition, the protagonist learns his lessons, and time moves on. Amusing speculation around the movie, though, has it that the day was repeated over and over again, for thousands of years.

South African policy has no such timeframe, nor the luxury of repeating itself indefinitely. It needs to accept the lessons that experience has already spoken, and adapt with urgency.

 Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).